Indigenous climate change adaptation in the Kimberly region of North-western Australia


Aboriginal communities in north-western Australia are likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change. Direct environmental impacts from predicted outcomes will exacerbate present difficulties in many Indigenous communities beset by social and economic disadvantages. 

In 2012 Indigenous people held land interests in about 80 per cent of northern Australia. Their land management responsibilities for this substantial portion of the Australian land mass include normal obligations, as well as distinct Indigenous forms of stewardship over areas of special Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander freehold and native title. The effective management of this land and its ecologies requires adaptation planning and strategies for capacity building involving Indigenous people and their traditional ecological knowledge. 

Insufficient research exists into potential climate change impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at a local level, and even less on how Indigenous people perceive climate change and their capacity to plan responses to these changes. Further, there is significant variation across the Kimberley region among the social groups who participated in this research project and how they understand climate-driven ecological changes and the extent to which their livelihoods will be affected. 

This report presents the findings of an investigation into the capacity of Indigenous people in north-western Australia to respond to climate risks and develop adaptation pathways, as well as their understanding and perceptions of climate and climate risks. Case studies were conducted in three targeted communities – the Kununurra community in the Keep River district (Western Australia/Northern Territory), the Warmun community (Western Australia) and the Bidyadanga community (Western Australia). This report provides an overview of the role of Indigenous people in developing adaptation strategies and the potential for these communities to build partnerships in these endeavours. 

Several capabilities are critical in developing adaptation planning frameworks in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In particular, incorporating climate change research findings and education into community-level and regional planning initiatives is essential to improve local understanding of concepts of predictability and the ability to project future change. 

The potential for partnerships and collaborations with institutions that can contribute to capacity building is critical; such partnerships can transfer knowledge and enrich local understanding of climate change risks and assist Aboriginal people to critically evaluate scientific predictions in their own languages and cultural terms and test adaptive capacity at a community level. Capacity building provides opportunities for equitable roles in climate change planning and assists in developing adaptation tools to contribute to the sustainability of Aboriginal communities over future generations. 

Little knowledge exists on how Australia’s Aboriginal communities have responded to climate variability and change historically and currently, nor on the lessons that can be learned from those responses. This project seeks to address this gap in understanding, at least in part. 

Please cite this report as:
Leonard, S, Mackenzie, J, Kofod, F, Parsons, M, Langton, M, Russ, P, Ormond-Parker, L, Smith, K & Smith, M 2013, Indigenous climate change adaptation in the Kimberley region of North-western Australia. Learning from the past, adapting in the future: Identifying pathways to successful adaptation in Indigenous communities, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 131 pp. 

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This photo is copyright © Sonia Leonard


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Attributions and Constraints
Sonia Leonard,John Mackenzie,Frances Kofod,Meg Parsons,Marcia Langton,Peter Russ,Lyndon Ormond-Parker,Kristen Smith,Max Smith